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Kerry Sephton, Head of Innovation – George Weston Foods

Making dough out of baking bread is tricky.  The product has a short shelf-life and is already highly commoditised, selling in over 95% of households, with tiny profit margins.  Moreover, one in ten consumers, plan to eat less bread in the future. 

In response to this testy market condition, Tip Top Bakeries (a division of George Weston Foods) invested heavily in innovation.  Kerry Sephton, Head of Innovation, shared some of their key learnings to date, with reference to their first major break-through – the creation of Abbot’s Village Gluten Free Bread, which finally launched in September 2016. 

An early problem for the team was identifying a market segment to focus their investments on.  Gluten-free loaves stood out as an opportunity with strong growth, in line with local and global trends.  With less than AUD $70m in sales, the market was small for significant investment.  In addition, they already had a strong presence in this small market, in the form of Tip Top’s ‘Burgen Gluten Free’, a solid second player.  

Nonetheless, a third of Australian households said they wanted gluten-free alternatives and the segment had just 10% household penetration, with  consumers paying significant premiums for gluten-free products they didn’t like!

Before beginning, previous product launches were reviewed for learnings and striking similarities were noted among products that hadn’t done well.  They’d fallen into the trap of trying to assess the solution before they’d fully understood the question, they’d made way too many assumptions.

Determined to break this pattern, the team got motivated about the idea, before getting trapped in solution mode.  Instead of working on a solution for ‘better gluten free bread, a question that would have brought about enhancement of existing products, they went back to the drawing board to understand consumer issues with existing products. 

They had a lot of data, yet lacked insight, as the available data had been coded for simplicity.  So, the ‘Consumer Information Team’ were briefed to ask more questions to understand consumers’ functional and emotional needs.  It turned out that consumers wanted to make a sandwich from the bread!  But gluten-free bread was too cakey and dry to eat fresh, it needed to be toasted. 

The team set a broad goal; “to design bread that gluten avoiders would love and be proud to buy”.  Given the importance of gluten in the baking process, this was a challenge!

Reflecting on the overall process, Kerry’s key take-away was: to focus on the right questions from the outset:

Diversity – Does the team have diversity of thinking as well as experience? How can diversity across teams be leveraged?   How will people with very different approaches work collaboratively, making sure every voice is heard?

Insight – Can you get more insight from the data available in your business?  Can you make use of direct feedback from your customers? How will you get an understanding of customers functional as well as emotional needs?

Common language – Has a structure and common language been set? How will you facilitate conversations and make decisions? 

Picture Success – Do we have a clear understanding of what success looks like before we set off? 

Knowing your role – Which team members are fulfilling each role, including inventing, inspiring, motivating, supporting?  Do you have a clear understanding of your role?

In the end, the results were in the baking and the success of ‘Abbot’s Gluten Free’ bread, and the team, could be measured by increased sales and market share.  However, key to the team was the consumer response.  “It tastes so much like normal bread, I actually had to check it was gluten free”!   Victory!